Sean Plunket has launched a new news outlet for himself - and other broadcasters edged out of talk radio in recent years. The Platform proudly proclaims it's editorially and financially free from any government influence and finance - and is urging listeners to ‘join the resistance.’ Mediawatch looks back on its first week of live output and asks the founder if it's really any different to what’s already on the air.
“Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?” Sean Plunket asked listeners to the livestream of his new digital media platform when it kicked off at 7am last Monday.
When he left MediaWorks radio station Magic Talk suddenly in early 2021, some wondered whether it was the end of a long career in (and out) of radio which included substantial stints at RNZ, Newstalk ZB, Radio Live and Magic Talk.
“When you’ve been de-platformed, what else is there to do but build your own?” he told Stuff last year, arguing mainstream media had become too constrained and politically compromised.
Now he has his own outlet.
The Platform’s website has been up and running for a while, carrying interviews and opinion pieces by staff and guest writers.
This week it began broadcasting online 11 hours a day from studios in Wellington and Central Otago.
A stridently-soundtracked promo imploring listeners to “join the Resistance” set out its stance like this:
“Most Kiwi media are overseas owned, most are taking government money that comes with strings attached. If they don't like what you say, you're canceled. But now there is a place where you can resist, get and share views that are honest and real.”
On his show Plunket Unchained on day one, Sean Plunket laid out his own manifesto, with Elvis Presley playing in the background.
“We're a platform for tolerance and openness and truth. We aren't taking your tax dollar filtered through the government's spin machine to fund our business,” he declared.
Open debate was the name of the game, he said - with limits.
“There are some rules, folks. Let's try and play the ball, not the person,” he said.
(Though that didn’t stop him later that morning referring to “hippies and mungbean munchers” in favour of EVs).
Follow the money
Public money for the media is a huge theme, an obsession even, for both Plunket and The Platform.
You can’t listen for long without hearing either a recorded message or one of the hosts claiming other media are compromised by public funding - but not them.
But public money has been funneled into public and private media companies, both directly and via contestable means, for 30 years.
So why are they so uptight about this now?
“What’s new is that you're only going to get public money if you agree to literally run your news business in accordance with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi,” Sean Plunket told Mediawatch, in an interview also streamed live on The Platform this week.
That Treaty requirement is only explicit for the Public Interest Journalism Fund, which feeds $55 million over three years to the media on a contestable basis. It’s a marginal component of the total annual public spending on media of about $300m and media bosses have insisted when questioned - by opposition politicians among others - that the fund doesn’t influence their journalism or editorial decision-making.
But Plunket doesn’t buy it.
“You won't get any New Zealand on Air funding unless you are politically aligned with the cultural commissar who sits there and doles that money out,” said Plunket.
“I’m not making a political point - except that democracy requires freedom of speech, and for citizens to be unafraid to say what they think and to discuss difficult issues and to agree to disagree without being canceled or derided,” he said.
So what are the issues he believes mainstream news organsations do not or cannot explore?
“It's been called the co-governance issue and we have to have . . . a mature debate in this country about where, constitutionally, the Treaty of Waitangi fits in relation to our governance. Are we a bicultural country? Are we a multicultural country? Do we give specific voting rights based on the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi to one group by ethnicity or not?” he said.
Haven’t those things been made headlines in recent times - and aren't those questions are being aired in mainstream media, including talkback radio?
“But the media focus on the name-calling that is going on,” Plunket countered.
“We had Kelvin Davis calling everyone in the opposition, you know, the granddaughters or grandsons of colonialists. People scream ‘racist!’ - and mainstream media helps people scream ‘racist!’ whenever those difficult issues are raised,” Plunket said.
Isn’t that just people exercising the free speech he says is so important, and the media reporting that - rather than ignoring it - is a good thing?
“Not when the media take sides. Not when there is groupthink,” Plunket said, citing Simon Bridges valedictory speech in Parliament last week - and a recent Taxpayers Union survey by pollster Curia which found six out of 10 people agreed when asked if public funding of media influenced their output.
On day one of Plunket Unchained, NZTU spokesperson Louis Holbrooke told Sean Plunket the lack of media coverage of the poll was in itself proof of the conflict of interest he claimed was a reason for the public disapproval in the first place.
'Unchained'? Or unchanged?
The Platform also runs hourly news bulletins and regular headlines - like an actual talk radio station - but open line unscreened talkback calls are its mainstay.
Two other broadcasters edged out by national commercial networks amid controversy in recent years are also fixtures of the daily schedule: sportscaster Martin Devlin, former MP and councilor Michael Laws.
The hosts tell the listeners they can take conversations further than on radio because they've got no advertisers to worry about at the moment, no cautious editors and they don't fear cancel culture.
But so far, most of the conversations seem little different to those on the talk radio networks where these veterans have worked before. And rather than sparking debate and challenging the hosts, as Sean Plunket urged, the majority of callers seem to simply tell the hosts they couldn’t agree more.
Sean Plunket claims mainstream media excludes voices and viewpoints they disapprove of, but the preoccupations of the Platform’s own hosts were prominent in the first week on air.
It’s early days, but can The Platform avoid becoming an echo chamber of its own, with a chorus of predictable comment on a narrow range of topics attracting a like-minded audience?
“If you want to change that, the woke and the people who don't agree with me . . . people who are listening to this on (RNZ) National radio . . they’ve got to ring and listen to The Platform as well. And then as our audience grows and we get more diversity, the quality of the debate improves,” Sean Plunket told Mediawatch.
If not, the boast of being “the resistance” might look like a form of that virtue-signaling Sean Plunket disparages in other media.